Shouldn’t there have been an indication, a whiff, a telltale sign of the making of the September 11 tragedy within the vast realm overseen by U.S. Intelligence agencies—backed as they are by billions of dollars and the latest high-tech spy gear—that would have clued them to the plans for this horrendous attack? The demonic but brilliant execution that demolished the World Trade Center twin towers, heavily damaged the Pentagon, and killed thousands of innocent people, indicated meticulous planning, training, and the coordination of disparate elements—including the in-plain-sight disguise of the suicide bombers themselves. This kind of operation would have taken years of painstaking plotting.
According to Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller, there were “no warning signs” of the kamikaze assaults. But somewhere in its files there is information indicating that as early as 1995 there existed a chilling plot code-named “Project Bojinka,” which included mid-air bombings of planes headed to the United States from Asian countries on a single day, as well as hijacking airliners and crashing them into targets like the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. According to Philippine authorities, this information was passed on that year to the U.S. Embassy in Manila and to the U.S. Joint Task Force on Terrorism.
Evidence of the plot surfaced when Ramzi Yousef—one of three men convicted subsequently for the 1993 WTC bombing and sentenced to 240 years in prison—hastily fled a burning Manila apartment (and the country) just 200 yards from the Vatican Embassy. Cops found Manila street maps and clothing remarkably similar to that of Pope John Paul’s entourage—the pontiff was due for a visit a week from the discovery—suggesting a planned attempt on his life. They also discovered bomb materials and a laptop whose disks revealed plans for Project Bojinka—which means “loud explosion” in Arabic.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a computer expert who regularly assists the National Bureau of Investigation (the Philippine FBI counterpart) and the Philippine National Police in their investigations of computer-related crimes said he downloaded the files, revealing the terrorists’ diabolical project. One plan called for the hijacking of U.S.-bound commercial airliners from various Asian capitals and then, according to him, crashing them into “key structures in the United States: The World Trade Center, the White House, the Pentagon, the Transamerican Tower, and the Sears Tower were among the prominent structures that had been identified in the plans that we had decoded.” The expert pointed out that in fact a dry run had been conducted in 1994, on a Tokyo-bound Philippine Airlines flight, when a small bomb under a passenger seat went off, killing a Japanese tourist.
When I noted the discrepancy between blowing up the planes in flight and crashing them into buildings, the expert said, “When we searched the files in the archive, there was a specific plan to blow planes up, but there were several other plans. One of them was to crash [the planes] into specific targets.” Abdul Hakim Murad, also convicted in the 1993 bombing and Yousef’s Manila roommate, admitted to Philippine investigators that he suggested to Yousef hijacking a U.S. airliner and crashing it into the CIA building. Also, according to a Washington Post article, his interrogators learned that Murad had taken flying lessons at aviation schools in San Antonio, Schenectady, New York, and in New Bern, North Carolina.
The U.S. response, according to the computer expert, was to demand of various Asian governments that they tighten up airport security, or otherwise face a ban on their national airlines landing on U.S. soil. He wonders why U.S. security experts did not imagine a similar scenario that would have had terrorists hijacking domestic U.S. transcontinental flights.
The terrorist scheme at the time was described by Vince Cannistraro, former director of the CIA’s counterterrorism division, as “extraordinarily ambitious, very complicated to bring off, and probably unparalleled by other terrorist operations that we know of”—words that portray accurately the September 11 atrocity. Immediate suspects then were Saddam Hussein or the hard-liners in Iran. And despite the lack of U.S. government pronouncements on the possible involvement of Iraq in this second, spectacularly successful attack, and the obsessive focus on, even mythification of, Osama bin Laden, it makes sense to still place Saddam high on the list of suspects.
Along with Yousef, several members of the extremist group Abu Sayyaf were linked to the alleged plot to assassinate the pope. (“Abu Sayyaf” means Bearer of the Sword, an apt term for its mujahideen, who envision a pure Islamic state. The formal name of the group, however, is Al Harakatul al Islamiya, or the United Islamic Movement.) Abu Sayyaf is based in southern Mindanao, where Islam predates the 16th-century arrival of Christianity in the Philippines.
Abu Sayyaf’s founder was Ustadz Abdurajack Janjalani, a Filipino and a militant preacher who fought the Russians in Afghanistan, where he and mujahideen like Osama bin Laden were trained by the U.S. At the end of that conflict he returned to the Philippines and formed Abu Sayyaf. He was killed in a 1998 firefight with government soldiers. Now led by his younger brother, Abu Sayyaf has attracted hard-line dissident members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the largest group to have fought the Marcos regime for an independent Muslim state. The MNLF turned moribund, however, when its head and founder, Nur Misuari, came to an agreement for limited autonomy with both Ferdinand Marcos and his successor, Corazon Aquino. The hard-liners continue to view the settlement as a sellout, their dream of an independent Moro republic shot down.
In the rough and tumble region where the center has never held and resistance to Christian Manila is centuries old, warlords and their small armies, rooted in clans, dominate the political arena. Dissident groups, a regular phenomenon, are referred to as “Lost Command” outfits, to indicate that they operate beyond the pale—though they are believed to act as proxies for the more established groups, in much the same way that the holy warriors in Afghanistan acted as proxies for the U.S. (as did Hussein and Panama’s Noriega) during the Cold War.
Abu Sayyaf has proved to be an especially large thorn in the side of the Philippine military since the early 1990s, with its bomb attacks in southern cities and raids on Christian villages, but especially since its 2000 kidnapping of 21 tourists and workers from Sipadan, a Malaysian resort, after which they crossed the porous border back to Jolo, a southern Philippine island where extremist Muslim groups are based. Emboldened by its success in gaining millions of dollars in ransom monies, which has enabled the group to purchase more high-powered arms and recruit more men, Abu Sayyaf struck again last May in a similar operation, this time taking hostages (including two American missionaries) from a plush resort on Palawan, the westernmost island in the Philippines.
Why would such a group attract Bin Laden’s attention? Other than its extremist views and propensity for violence, there are more mundane reasons. A Janjalani sister is reputed to be one of Bin Laden’s wives, and Bin Laden’s sister is married to a Saudi businessman, Mustapha Jammal Khalifa, who also has a Filipina wife and visited the Philippines several times in the 1990s. He set up a foundation that Philippine military intelligence believes serves as a conduit for Al Qaeda funds to Abu Sayyaf. Al Qaeda has also provided monies to another larger armed fundamentalist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has battled the Philippine army, but in the past year has remained quiescent.
If these files were available to the FBI as early as 1995, why then were we caught flat-footed? Why wasn’t closer attention paid to Project Bojinka, to the possible sponsor or sponsors behind it and behind Ramzi Yousef? In an interview with The Washington Post, Robert Heafner, now retired but the 1995 FBI head in Manila, said,”I believe everything was done that could have been done.” Voice queries to the FBI’s press office yielded a terse “No comment.” Similar questions directed at the State Department’s Joe Reap, from its counterterrorist division, were equally fruitless.
In an essay written this past June for the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin titled “Iraqi Complicity in the World Trade Center Bombing and Beyond,” Laurie Mylroie, author of Study of Revenge: Saddam Hussein’s Unfinished War Against America, argues that “a ‘Chinese wall’ stands between the Justice Department and national security bureaucracies.” In cases of terrorism on American soil, the question of foreign “state sponsorship is entirely subordinated to the criminal question of determining the guilt or innocence of the individuals charged with the terrorist attack.”
Another crucial point Mylroie makes is that Iraq’s hand can be inferred from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. I asked her if she felt that way about the second attack. She replied, “I can’t actually see anyone else.” Bin Laden’s capabilities, she feels, are overblown. He serves as a “false flag,” i.e., a front for another party. If Mylroie’s thesis is correct—and she makes a pretty persuasive case—once the 1993 World Trade Center bombers were placed behind bars, the very real possibility that Project Bojinka would still be put into effect, that an organization much larger than Al Qaeda might back it (albeit very possibly with Bin Laden’s participation), was essentially filed away and forgotten.
In my last conversation with the computer expert, he said he had gotten a call from a friend, a retired FBI agent now living in the Philippines. This man said he remembered the reference to crashing planes into specific targets. According to the expert, the agent said, “This was ignored in the preparation of evidence for the trial because [then] there was no actual attempt to crash any plane into a U.S. target. . . . So there was no crime to complain about. . . . ” The conversation between the two ended with the ex-agent warning the expert to take extra precautions, as he had played a role in the jailing of the terrorists.